Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Book Review - William Goldman's The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: 1973
Format: Hardcover, 399 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Buttercup grew up on a farm in Florin. She was a reputed beauty, the great Count Rugen and his wife one day visited the farm to see for themselves. They saw a girl with potential, if she'd bathe, and the Countess saw a very attractive Farm Boy. Though Westley never took notice of the Countess, his heart belonged to Buttercup. The day Buttercup realized she loved him in return he set out into the world to make their fortune. The day he died was the worst of her life, but she emerged from her suffering the most beautiful woman in the world. A woman who could never love again. When Prince Humperdinck offered her his hand in marriage, she was straightforward with him, as he was with her, she will never love him yet she will marry him because otherwise he will kill her. When she is unveiled to the people of Florin they instantly idolize her and the Prince, a warmongering bloodthirsty man, realizes that his plan to have his bride kidnapped and killed framing the county of Guilder is going to go off perfectly. He didn't count on the man in black. The Prince's three assassins, Inigo, a wizard with a sword, Fezzik, a giant that can't be beaten, and Vizzini, a Sicilian with the most cunning mind in the world, kidnap Buttercup with little problem. But when they are crossing Florin channel to Guilder they realize they are being followed. Their pursuer is the man in black. First he bests Inigo, then he bests Fezzik, once he bests Vizzini, Buttercup and her ransom are his. Though that isn't his plan. Buttercup boasts to this masked man that her Prince will come, the masked man says that she is heartless and he should just kill her. That is when the game changes. With fire swamps and out-sized rodents, miracle men and six-fingered swords, can true love find a way back from being mostly dead? Or will evil triumph? After all, life isn't fair.

Ask anyone of my generation what their favorite film is and I bet they answer The Princess Bride. Sure, there are other films of note, from Star Wars to Willow to Empire Records, but The Princess Bride IS the film of my generation. We watch it when we're sad, we watch it when we're happy, when we used to gather in each others apartments in college and had time to waste we'd put it in the VCR. It's the biggest, snuggest, comfort blanket there is. Yeah, suck it gravity blanket you have nothing on The Princess Bride. I can still remember when I first watched it. The summer of 1988 was the hottest on record in Wisconsin. We didn't have central air but the way the upstairs rooms were designed in my house my parents room, my brother's, and mine all had connecting doors. We pulled the shades down, we placed one air conditioning unit in my room and another in my parents, opened all the doors and lived in those three rooms for the summer, leaving occasionally to go to the pool or the movie theater and one memorable outing to Perkins when the air raid sirens went off. I was lucky in that my room became the TV room. We had a tiny TV/VCR combo unit my Dad had gotten for his art gallery and we placed it on an old table we had and rented all the tapes we could. One of these was The Princess Bride. I was instantly in love with it. I watched it again and again, my face inches from the TV as Inigo and Westley fought along the Cliffs of Insanity. I checked out that tape so much that summer that the video store let me buy it off them eventually, and I still have that old copy, though many different DVD releases have been purchased since. In college I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen, but it's an odd experience seeing it with a bunch of drunks who recite every single line of dialogue. But then again, it is the film of my generation.

I don't know when I realized there was a book written by William Goldman. For years I believed there was an S. Morgenstern and William Goldman was a hack, but what can I say? I was an impressionable ten year old and I wanted to believe that a book this wonderful, this magical was real. Of course it IS real, but in it's own special way. But the truth is when I first picked up this book I couldn't see it for what it was. I loved the book because of the movie, and the book seemed to fill in all these little gaps for me. Therefore I felt like this book was the film's bible, an annotated version of the film where I was just waiting for my favorite lines to appear. I finally knew why Fezzik was so scared to be left alone in Greenland! I FINALLY understood the fencing banter between Westley and Inigo on the tops of the Cliffs of Insanity. I knew where Fezzik found the four white horses as well as why he rhymed. All these pieces fell into place and I developed an even greater love of the movie. But as that was happening I was also falling in love with the book. There are rare occasions when I love a book and it's adaptation. There are even rarer occasions when I love them but admit that they are two totally different things. Yet here this is true. The movie adaptation of the book is funny and wonderful, but also a lovely fairy tale with oodles of romance. The book, the book is snarky and barbed and self-aware and almost an anti-fairy tale and yet it stands on it's own and is a classic in it's own right. The Princess Bride as originally written by William Goldman is a mine of the meta (meta was already a thing but just) and takes what is expected and subverts it. Pirates and thieves are good while Princes are bad and it's all just perfect, in a way all its own.

Yet there is an irony built into the book. This book is "abridged" wherein Goldman omits all that he thought boring and insinuates his own voice over the voice of "Morgenstern's" with the liberal use of italicized text. These interruptions, along with the introduction, are the framing device that, tweaked here and there, became Peter Falk reading to Fred Savage in the film. While the interruptions are entertaining, being an author fictionalizing his own life and then commenting on another author who doesn't exist, the introduction is a little self-indulgent. There's a bit too much "Hollywood" and not enough grounding in reality. The pool scene which seems to be a Dudley Moore fantasy from any of his various seventies and eighties films is just a bridge too far. Therefore I would seriously like any of you who've read this book to answer truthfully, how many of you have actually read the introduction after the first time you've read the book? Just as I thought. None of you! I can not count how many times I've read The Princess Bride, but I'm pretty darn sure I've read the introduction exactly two times: the first time I read the book and then this time. The irony in all this is that the readers are abridging an "abridged" book as they read it. I've often wondered why there's never been a version released without the introduction, or in this anniversary edition's case, the two introductions. Perhaps it's to show the readers that are under the same delusion I was that Morgenstern is nothing more than the creation of Goldman, and that while the introduction is uneven and pretty unnecessary, it shows the complete breadth of Goldman's talents. Who knows? Perhaps we may get answers in five years when the inevitable fiftieth anniversary edition is released...

Those people who have only ever watched the movie and never read the book are missing out because they never get to see the depths of the friendship between Fezzik and Inigo. Yes, they were wonderfully brought to life by André the Giant and Mandy Patinkin and you could see the friendship between them, but in the book their friendship is the backbone that holds the story together. This is especially seen when they enter the Zoo of Death! At this point if you haven't read the book you're wondering WTF is the Zoo of Death!?! Well, the Zoo of Death was obviously not included in the film for budgetary reasons. Why have Count Rugen's little torture chamber for Westley buried underground beneath four levels of animals that the Prince loves to hunt and kill when a smaller chamber accessed via a tree would serve just as well? But the movie's loss is our gain! Because here we can see that their codependency is based on actually caring for each other. They followed Vizzini because they both were searching for a purpose in life and Vizzini made that purpose easy, just do as he said. Yet while entering into that partnership the two outcasts found each other. Inigo will gladly trade rhymes forever when Fezzik is down, and each knows how to push the others buttons, not out of malice, but in order to have the other be the best person they can be. The reward of all this is in the end when Fezzik saves the day. He learns to think on his own and starts to become more than just a frightened little boy but a man. In fact I would say that, at least in the book, these two are the stars. We never learn much about Buttercup or Westley's backstory, but Inigo and Fezzik have these fleshed out pasts that lead to this adventure and you can see their futures stretching out in front of them, and you just want to be on that adventure as well.

Which makes you wonder, is there ever going to be another adventure? Ten years after The Princess Bride Goldman did write another short story under the pseudonym of Morgenstern, The Silent Gondoliers, which was reissued in 2001, which was right when people were wondering if Buttercup's Baby was going to be out soon. The thing is I don't really know what's up with Buttercup's Baby. For those who don't know when the twenty-fifth anniversary edition was released twenty years ago now there was almost a hundred new pages added to The Princess Bride. No, it wasn't Buttercup going to her training, or anything omitted from the original text as a joke, it started out with a new introduction by Goldman in the vein of his original introduction, some young woman hitting on him for no reason, followed by some references to a son he never had, you get the idea. What was fun was he expanded on the missing "Reunion Scene" which I'm sure if you're a hardcore fan you wrote in for. And no, I'm not going to spoil that for you. After much toing and froing, including references to Stephen King, whose books Goldman has adapted for the screen many times, you get to the meat, a new chapter! We see all our favorites, Fezzik, Inigo, Westley, Buttercup, and their daughter Waverly. Yes, that's right, they have a daughter who is soon to endure a kidnapping, much as her mother did years before. It's a very solid beginning to a new story that ends on a literal cliffhanger. So I can't help but wonder why did Goldman write it? He could never hope to eclipse the success of The Princess Bride and making Buttercup's Baby into a movie would be verboten, so why? My best guess is that this was a little gift to the fans, a thank you for all the support over the years. Will we get more? I don't know, and honestly, I don't think that was ever the plan, and Goldman's getting up there in age. But ask me again in five years...


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